In My Own Words: Preparing for a pandemic Passover by Rabbi Rachel Esserman

My plans for the holiday were set before Purim last year. Then, of course, the pandemic hit and guests were uninvited as seders became limited to those living in the same household. I did have an option to attend a Zoom seder, but, after thinking about it, I decided to keep my Shabbat/chagim (holidays) practice and not get on the computer. That meant I held a seder where, for the first time ever, I was the only one present.

A friend brought over a few Passover goodies and I had plenty of matzah for the holiday. I tried a new dish – a frittata – that now appears on my table regularly, although with different roasted veggies each time. However, food, except maybe for charoset, has never been the main point of the occasion for me. So, I took my Reconstructionist haggadah and carefully read through the ritual. It was actually one of the most meaningful and thought-provoking seders I’ve ever had. I was able to go at my own pace and found myself stopping frequently after the readings and commentary to analyze the material and how it related to my life. Of course, the fact that I was doing this during a pandemic may have created a more emotional reaction than normal. At that point, we knew little about the COVID virus and the ending of the seder – next year in Jerusalem – left many of us wondering if we and our loved ones would be alive for the next Passover.

Last year, if you asked me whether we would be celebrating another pandemic Passover, I might have scoffed. Surely the pandemic would be under control by the end of 2020. That was not to be and so we face yet another seder with fewer people at our table. Since I’ll be celebrating the holiday alone again, I’ve started to look for ways to make it meaningful.

One of the things I love about the Reconstructionist haggadah is the additional readings and poetry it contains. That’s why I was excited to learn about the new Reform haggadah “Mishkan Haseder: A Passover Haggadah” edited by Rabbi Hara E. Person and Jessica Greenbaum, with mood-setting abstract art by Tobi Kahn. In addition to the traditional – but liberal – readings for the seder in Hebrew and English, this one contains a great deal of poetry, written by Jewish and non-Jewish poets, that speak to the theme of the holiday.

I am pleased that it contains two of my favorite Jewish readings: Marge Piercy’s “Maggid,” which moves me to tears every time I read it, and Judy Chicago’s “Merger.” The Piercy poem celebrates those who were brave enough to leave the safety of their homes for freedom: Those with “the courage to let go of the door, the handle / the courage to shed the familiar walls.” Chicago’s work speaks of how someday we can make the world “be called Eden once again.” But the beauty of this new haggadah is that it contains poems and poets with whom I am not familiar. It’s impossible to name them all, but a few stood out, including the three poems that feature the four children, particularly “Dayenu” by Erika Dreifus, which will speak to anyone with a differently-abled relative. The idea behind washing our hands is expanded in Diann L. Neu’s “Blessed Are the Works” and the true meaning behind family gatherings is explored in “Passover Love Song” by Hara E. Person.

The one thing I definitely plan to include at my seder, though, are the six options the haggadah offers for additional or replacement Four Questions. Although I don’t believe they were written with a pandemic in mind, they certainly reflect what has occurred over the past year, including the need to note those who are no longer with us and wondering how we can live “with the tears” that come when thinking of them. Another suggestion asks us to contemplate “how can each of us actually work for the freedom of others?” The final question is one we should pause and think about every year as we celebrate this holiday of freedom: “From what narrow place do I wish to leave? Where am I headed? How can we guide the Jewish people from a narrow place?”

Passover will be different again this year. We will celebrate knowing the losses that people have suffered and the difficulties they have faced. There will be people missing not only from our dinner tables, but from our lives, whether they have succumbed to this terrible disease or passed away for other reasons. We may feel we are in a narrow place with no end in sight, but, like Nachshon who stepped into the Sea of Reeds before the waters began to part, we must have faith that the pandemic will end.